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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Fairy Folklore in Jim Henson's 'Labyrinth'

 I'm going to do a small series of reviews over the next few months looking at the fairy folklore in different films and tv shows, prompted by some discussion on social media. I think this will be fun and also help people see the various threads of older beliefs that are woven into some popular shows and movies. I'm thinking of covering a variety of things including Pan's Labyrinth, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Legend, Maleficent, The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Siren, and maybe Krampus. But I'll start with one of the most classic fairy films, Jim Henson's Labyrinth. 

 Full disclosure this is one of my favourite movies, in part because Brian Froud was eth concept designer and he is one of my favourite artists. I also want to note that while I'm specifically picking out threads of folklore found across the film there are many, many ways to interpret this movie including seeing it all as a coming of age story, a dream, or as a reflection of Sarah's mental state. I'm not getting into any of those here and sticking purely to the folklore.

Discussing fairylore in Labyrinth is, admittedly, low hanging fruit (pun intended). Brian Froud has said in an interview that "We based Labyrinth on European folklore." so its hardly a stretch to find that folklore on display in the film. I will go over them point by point below. Before I start I do want to quickly note that historically goblins, elves, and fairies were treated interchangeably and the terms were used synonymously so I will be taking the same approach here. 

Warning spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn't seen the movie before.

  • The foreshadowing in the movie of the owl in the park while Sarah is pretending to rehearse a play, where the owl is later revealed to be the Goblin King in disguise, harkens back to folklore which tells us that the fairies can be around but unseen at any time. One might read into this the implication that the goblins had wanted to take Sarah's brother and were arranging circumstances to their own advantage. This is echoed later in the labyrinth where Jareth appears in disguise as a beggar then reveals his true self to confront Hoggle and Sarah. 
  • The idea of a specific phrase or word having magic power to invoke Otherworldly beings, ie 'I wish the goblins would come and take you away right now'. This is very much in line with older folklore where the fairies could take a thing - or a human - if certain words were said about it. In folklore this was usually either the owner/guardian speaking ill of it or people failing to properly bless it; in this case wishing her brother away would qualify as speaking ill of it or ill-wishing in my opinion. 
    This is reinforced when Sarah asks for her brother back and Jareth replies 'what's said is said'. 
  • Jareth trying to bribe Sarah with the gift of a magical object is reminiscent of various stories of the Fair Folk giving something in exchange for something they want form a human as a form of compensation - although what they give is rarely what it appears to be.
  • The scenes where Jareth turns an object into various things - a crystal, a snake, cloth -  echoes wider fairy lore about fairy glamour and also is similar to the scenes in the ballad of Tam Lin 
  • '13 Hours' a time that doesn't properly exist on any human clock recalls wider folklore about the way that time moves differently in the world of Fairy. This is also shown in the way that Sarah's entire adventure in the Labyrinth occurs over those 13 hours but she returns home after a much shorter time, not even long enough for her father and step-mother to notice her absence. 
  • The deceptive nature of appearances is a particularly interesting aspect of fairylore incorporated into the film. Sarah learns quickly that the 'nice' looking twee fairies bite while the unattractive dwarf Hoggle - as well as beings like Ludo who frighten others - are helpful. There are also several points where the landscape of the labyrinth itself proves this as well, with things changing based on perspective, like the wall that is actually a doorway. As Sarah herself says partway into her journey 'things aren't always what they seem'. 
  • Sarah encounters a talking worm soon after entering the labyrinth and later talking objects like the door knockers. This idea of intelligence and speech in beings/objects that humans wouldn't normally attribute them too is another thing that is often found in fairy folklore, particularly because things may not be what they seem - like the owl that is actually the goblin king - and partially due to fairy magic. 
  • Toby being taken so that he can be turned into a goblin* is from classic changeling lore, where a baby might be taken and turned into one of the fairies, or trolls, or trows, etc., It was common across a wide swath of folklore for humans to be stolen and transformed into the same type of being who stole them, in order to add to the numbers of the Good folk who are not known to reproduce often. One might perhaps argue that Sarah's later experience with the Junk Lady where Sarah has forgotten why she is there and starts to transform into a Junk Lady herself also echoes this theme. 
  • Following on that last point Sarah engaging in a quest to recover her brother is also following classic changeling folklore. Although her quest is particularly magical and odd, we find multiple examples across folklore of people who recovered stolen humans (babies, brides, etc.,) by either confronting the fairies directly or by stealing the person back from them. Often times in these tales the person is seen riding a horse as part of a fairy cavalcade and the rescuer pulls them down and gets them back home without saying a word (if they speak the person is lost).  
  • Jareth asking Sarah how she likes the labyrinth and when she replies that its 'a piece of cake' he immediately makes it harder and creates a dangerous situation for her to face, as well as his later claim that his actions in tormenting her throughout the labyrinth were 'generous' certainly captures the wider temperament of the fairies. The Fireys inability to understand Sarah's physical differences - her body parts can't detach as their do - is another good example of the way that fairies think differently from humans and react differently to situations. We might also argue that the way they try to remove her head but are angry when she pulls off one of theirs (and throws it) saying that isn't fair because you are only supposed to throw your own head, despite their attempts to forcibly pull hers off demonstrate the different rules that fairies apply to themselves versus humans. 
  • The scene with the peach has a lot going on with it, but I'll just note in particular the idea of eating fairy food resulting in a person being trapped in fairy and the deceptive dreamlike nature of some fairy experiences. 
This touches on the main points that I'd like to note with this particular film. There may be more that I have missed or some that I mention that are open to discussion but I think this summarizes the most salient points. From the perspective of fairy folklore at least Labyrinth may be viewed as a classic tale of a quest to recover a changeling, albeit with a lot of extra flourishes and additions, and goblins that are more comical than truly malicious. 

*the implication here is that all of the goblins in the labyrinth where once human babies, stolen and transformed.

1 comment:

  1. Good breakdown. I had forgotten the peach scene. I would also note that speech in the Labrynth and in the Fey Realms in general is very precise, as shown by Sir Didymus, demanding that none could pass without his permission, then granting it because Sarah was the first to actually ask. Not sure about the Helping Hands though.

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